The Beauty of Being Small

by Victor Chen
21 Aug 2019

The man behind the luxury accessory brand, Ethan K, is not in a rush to open shops in every fashion capital. His game is in keeping close involvement in the running of the business and in every product that it puts on the shelf.

It was an absolute case of déjà vu,” Mr. Ethan Koh says of his successful show at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore in May. “A number of people have asked me to host an event to show my latest collection. It wasn’t easy; first, I had to make sure that the collection was ready.” But when things finally fell into place, Mr. Koh was overwhelmed. “It was exactly as I saw it in my mind.” 

The London-based Singaporean designer worked with Ms. Olga Iserlis, one of Singapore’s leading event creators, who managed to book the space where they installed digital lights to serve as backdrop to about 20 of Mr. Koh’s latest creations. Named Mystical Landscapes, the collection signaled a turning point of some sort for the brand by presenting younger, easier pieces.

To the minaudières and evening bags that have become staples of the label were added more practical, roomier pieces that easily transition from day to night.  

“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family and my father was a big inspiration to me. My parents recognized my creative ability early and encouraged me to pursue it.” He left Singapore for London and found a spot at Central Saint Martins, where began assembling his first collection.

“But my father intervened,” he recalls. “He told me that I couldn’t simply design and sell bags; he advised me to set up a proper business.” (Mr. Koh’s father is the third-generation family member involved in the exotic skin business, which was founded by Mr. Koh’s great-grandfather.) 

Mr. Koh launched Ethan K in 2010. “I realized that I couldn’t survive with just creative designs — they had to be organized to capture an audience.”

“I learned a practical approach to running my business. I would say that I am half a creator and half a businessman. I have a business team that helps me run the business, although I’m very involved in business decisions. I didn’t have the leisure of someone doing the business so I could focus on the creative side. My father has taught us to think on our feet, and that’s how it has been since I started.”

Selling to a niche sector helps Mr. Koh take control of both his business and creative output. “I think of Ethan K as a contemporary art gallery. Our annual production is around 1,000 pieces (give or take a couple hundreds) and although we are, broadly speaking, in the fashion business, we present only one theme per year, instead of per season.”

That limited output is channeled through select stores: Harrod’s in London, L’Eclaireur in Paris, TsUM in Moscow, and Malmaison by The Hourglass in Singapore. Ethan K has a single bespoke gallery on Sloan Street in London, a discreet and private establishment that receives clients only by appointment. 

Ethan K founder, Ethan Koh

Mr. Koh looks back on long years of dreaming big. “I remember being on a plane doing some sketches of bags when I ran into a lady who turned out to be the fashion director at Harrod’s. She told me that if I ever produced my drawings, she would buy them. And Harrod’s became one of my first stockists,” he exclaims in disbelief.

“I remember going to Moscow with a classmate who took me to a department store buyer who in turn bought my first collection. I didn’t even know where we were going.

“These are some of the incidents that have led me to where I am today. In life it’s about connecting the dots sometimes. It’s a gift that a well-trained business person may not necessarily have. I think I’m blessed with that gift: I recognize and apply it to my everyday life instead of writing a ten-page business plan.”

With Mystical Landscapes, Mr. Koh drew attention to shapes and materials instead of highlighting crocodile skin as guests might have expected. He reveals it’s a way of growing with the customers, among them the millennials and younger set who support social causes.

“As a business, we do not claim to be the most sustainable, but we do put in serious thought and effort towards that goal.” It takes about three crocodiles to make a bag because the skins have to match. Mr. Koh does his best to maximize the use of every skin by using what would ordinarily be called the scraps on small parts such as bag handles.

“Ultimately, by staying small and ensuring that our bags end up with the right customer, we hope to stem the indiscriminate wastage of exotic skins. The whole cycle has reached a point where everything is over-produced and -marketed. Even the consumers are facing difficulty trying to digest that.

“It has never been about numbers for us, but we have been careful. The idea of me starting the Ethan K brand was to merge culture, design and craftsmanship. I’m excited to have one store that everyone is dying to visit.”